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HELENA — Lawmakers heard testimony Friday on a bill that would limit the liability of Montana businesses, health care workers and people providing personal protective products due to COVID-19. 

Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls presented the bill to the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee. 

“Right now we kind of have an anything goes type of situation around the state,” Fitzpatrick said. This changes that.”

Senate Bill 65 would grant property owners protection from lawsuits unless they show gross negligence. Gross negligence is defined in several Montana cases as the failure to use “slight” care. 

What that means in practice is that if a business or organization largely follows state, county and federal public health guidelines, they are protected from lawsuits if someone suspects they contract COVID-19 on the premises. The bill does allow lawsuits in the event of intentional harm or if the plaintiff is either hospitalized or dies due to COVID-19. 

Current law says that property owners can be sued if someone suspects they contracted COVID-19 on their property, regardless of whether the property owner and their employees follow public health guidelines.

Representatives of all manner of businesses testified in favor of the bill, saying that liability protection was an important first step in re-opening Montana’s economy. There were 16 proponents representing more than 20 business associations. Three people represented opposition to the bill.

Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a written statement that he supports the bill, and previously said a bill like this was key to rescinding the state’s mask mandate. The committee is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday.

James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.

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